Coming Away again

Come from Away

Home of the Arts

July 2 – 31

“Come From Away” is the type of musical you can easily see multiple times (as I have now done), such is the joyousness of its experience and its always-applicable reminder about the human spirit’s triumph over adversity. The musical is quite unlike any other, not just because of the heart and soul that operates at its core. There are a lot of moving parts to its achievement ….. literally. Not only is there a revolve stage, but Beowulf Borritt’s apparently simple scenic design of a collection of chairs is anything but, as they are seamlessly repositioned to create all range of settings, including the transportation that brings the ‘plane people’ to the remote government and airport town at the centre of the extraordinary tale.

The documusical (book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein) tells theremarkable real-life story of stranded September 11 passengers and the small edge-of-the-Atlantic island town in Newfoundland (off the north east tip of Canada) that welcomed them when 38 planes were ordered to land there unexpectedly as part of closing United States airspace, effectively expanding the town’s population from 9000 to 16000 people overnight.

Not only are chairs moved about in transition from plane to community centre and local tavern scenes, but simple props and jacket and hat type costume changes allow the ensemble cast of 12 performers to jump in and out of roles as the scared and exhausted international plane passengers, and the Gander townspeople alike. Choreography not only allows for flawless transformations, but uses stylised movement to pause scenes in striking tableaus of reactions and responses, such as to transition things through the hours and hours that passengers were kept aboard before being permitted to deplane. And Howell Binkley’s lighting design gives some memorable moments such as when it is used to create the effect of frantic traffic controllers all at individual devices.

The performers are all excellent and authentic in their multiple roles, thanks, in part, to the work of dialect coach Joel Goldes. Indeed, cast members are all incredibly versatile in their talents, assuming so many character parts. Ash Roussett is a vocal standout as Kevin T, particularly in the emotional ballad ‘Prayer’ which sees several characters make their way to houses of worship around the town. Jasmine Vaughns gives a moving performance as Hannah, mother of a missing Manhattan firefighter, delivering a soulfully emotional ‘I Am Here’, in reflection of the helplessness she feels not knowing of his fate. And Noni McCallum projects an endearing charm as the warm-hearted and empathetic local Beulah who bonds with Hannah over the fact that both of their sons are firefighters. 

There is also a great deal of humour. Kyle Brown’s comic timing makes native New Yorker Bob’s scepticism as funny as it is endearing as he struggles to understand the kindness of the Canadian strangers. And Kat Harrison makes the character of Bonner her own, capturing the animal carer’s manic determination to take care of the animals on board the grounded flights, without venturing into dogmatism

Tight pacing means that the show’s 100 minutes duration (no interval) flies by. Even so, the story does not shy away from difficult aspects such as its reminder of the anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the 2001 attacks. This handled well through the quietly dignified Ali, thanks to an appropriately-pitched performance from Joseph Naim; as well as seeing the fellow-passenger fear and suspicious growing around him, we are witness also to the compassion shown by American Airlines captain Beverley Bass (Alana Tranter), American Airlines’ first female captain.

While the score contains only 15 songs, under Michael Tyack AM’s musical direction, it seems like the music never stops between the opening ‘Welcome to the Rock’ describing the town of Gander, to the tearfully reflective ‘Finale’ in which characters reunite to celebrate the lifelong friendships and strong connections they formed in spite of the terrorist attacks. A range of musical influences within August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations and arrangements sweep the story along through traditional Irish, American folk and sea-shanty type songs, to name but a few, and appropriately the end-of-show standing ovation continues beyond acknowledgment of the cast to celebration of the on-stage band members.

A high point comes from the fiddle-filled ‘Screech In’, during which the Newfoundlanders host a party for their guests, complete with an initiation ceremony involving a shot of the province’s 40% alcohol rum and other traditions, the second of its fiddle-filled drinking songs. There is also Tranter’s inspirational ‘Me and the Sky’, in which Bass attempts to reconcile her once optimistic view of the world with how it has suddenly changed. Again, the tone is well tempered, with up-tempo numbers sitting alongside more moving numbers, like when, in ‘Lead Us Out of the Night’, the passengers finally get to see what has actually happened for themselves and watch helpless, barely knowing where they are but still thankful it is not there.

“Come From Away” weaves together a rich tapestry of charm in all of its aspects. At the centre of the Tony and Olivier Award winning Canadian musical is its beautiful storytelling. The fact that it is the story of ordinary people (while some characters are amalgamated all are based on real testimony), makes it all the more captivating. And its messaging about how to welcome those who may be different to us is inspiring in the warmest of fuzzy, feel-good ways.

Thousand tops

With 2020 being largely taken out of the mix, it has taken me just over 8 years to review 1000 shows as Blue Curtains Brisbane. And my top 10 favourites from within them, appropriately feature shows from 2013 to 2021… a mix of comedy, cabaret, musicals, theatre and festival fare.

1. Delectable Shelter (The Hayloft Project)

The Hayloft Project’s 2013 out-of-the-box black comedy, “Delectable Shelter” literally took place in a box as bunker at Brisbane Powerhouse in its claustrophobic tell of five doomsday survivors planning a utopian society. With ‘80s power ballads and hilarious homages to their ancestors from later descendants, there was so much by which to be entertained in the anarchy of its apocalyptic storytelling, making it my absolute favourite.

2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theatre of Great Britain)

In 2018, the National Theatre of Great Britain provided QPAC audiences with an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition with their acclaimed production of Mark Hadden’s much-loved novel. Inventive, imaginative stage design which saw the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set transformed into mathematical graph paper, provided many visually memorable moments authentic to experience of the show’s London production.

3. All My Love (HIT Productions)

HIT Productions’ sensitive “All My Love” chronicled the fascinating and little-known relationship between the larger-than-life writer and poet Henry Lawson and the radical socialist and literary icon Mary Gilmore, taking its audience along an evocative journey about the people beyond their words, but also their passion in a “Love Letters” type way.

4. Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre)

The musical so nice, Queensland Theatre programed it twice. With stunning visuals and costumes, a soundtrack featuring over 20 original Tim Finn songs and humour, the Helpman-Award-winning musical took audiences into both the glitz of a high-end 1950s department store shop floor and the personal lives of its employees with infectious wit and charm.

5. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The Curator’s 2021 drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

6. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company)

In 2016, Daniel Evans’ gave meaning anew to Shakespeare’s depiction of the Machiavellian King Richard III through bold exploration of its story’s silences, gaps and biases and dynamic discovery of new character depths and unexpected provocations.

7. Hamnet (Dead Centre)

As part of the 2018 Brisbane Festival, Ireland’s Dead Centre used audio visual technology in combination with live performance to give us the perfectly-pitched and movingly thought-provoking story of Shakespeare’s one son (just 11 when he died), knowing that he is just one letter away from greatness.

8. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

My favourite ever Queensland Theatre show…. More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, the company’s landmark 2021 production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

9. California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French)

The 2016 Spiegeltent saw audiences treated to the first Brisfest appearance of the cool-cat cabaret crooners of the “California Crooners Club”. The energetic and charming show from genuine, generous performers (led by concept creator Hugh Sheridan), was a marvellous mixed bag of old, new and original numbers curated together and harmonised like familiar favourites.

10. Forthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

And….

Special mention to La Boite Theatre Company’s “Still Standing”, which in 2002 and 2003 presented a music-filled immersion into the Brisbane rock scene of the 1980s as counter-culture to the repressive Bjelke-Petersen regime that although I saw before starting reviewing, still stands as my favourite ever Brisbane theatre experience.

Fizzy fun infection

The Wedding Singer (David Venn Enterprises)

HOTA, Home of the Arts

June 18 – 26

It’s 1985, a time of denim, ruffles, leather and lace, oversized gadgetry and technicolour everything… and “The Wedding Singer” has it all in abundance. The musical comedy, based on the hit 1998 rom-com movie of the same name staring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, celebrates it all. And while it may not necessarily be as charming as its source material, the on-stage trip down a memory lane of perms, pastels and parachute pants is still loads of fun.

The plot is essentially that of the movie. The title character, New Jersey’s Robbie Hart (Christian Charisiou) is a life-of-the-party wanna-be rock star who fronts a wedding band with his two buddies, bass guitarist Sammy (Haydan Hawkins) and keyboard player George (Ed Deganos), revelling in the notion of happily ever after… until he is left at the alter by his fiancé Linda (Kirby Burgess). His resurrection from an ensuring bitter depression (resulting in ruin of others’ weddings through his morose lyrics and lacklustre performances) comes from a connection with kind-hearted waitress Julia (Teagan Wouters) who unfortunately already has a Wall Street boyfriend, Glen (Stephen Mahy).

While things take a while to gain momentum, the story (book by Tim Herlihy, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay) is soon moving along with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, including some huge power ballads, like the hyper-emotional breakup letter ‘A Note From Linda’ and her later ‘Let Me Come Home’, where, looking a lot like the girl from ‘November Rain’, Burgess belts out her epic vocals accompanied with some sexy Whitesnake vixen moves.

Another highlight comes courtesy of Act One’s ‘Casualty of Love’ from Robbie and Company. The dynamite number encapsulates the show’s high energy and tight choreography, complete with some ‘Thriller’ moves that are absolutely in sync across all of the dancers. Of-the-era references abound throughout the musical, in Michael Ralph’s choreographic nods to movies like “Flashdance” and music videos like Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’, but also within the lyrics of the upbeat opener ‘It’s Your Wedding Day’. And its soundtrack certainly reflects the eclecticism of the era, with recognisable musical sensibilities from new wave, dance-pop, glam metal and even some rap (‘Move That Thang’) from Robbie’s sassy grandmother Rosie (Susan-Ann Walker).

Kim Bishop’s nostalgic costume design also catalogues the era in all of its excess… with puffy sleeves, sequins and polyester, plus, in particular in the punchy ‘It’s All About The Green’, shoulder power dressing when Robbie tries to get a job on Wall Street like Glen in order impress Julia. And Nathan Weyers’s low-fuss set design is entirely appropriate in its backdrop of all the action and colour, especially in the show’s later scenes which see Robbie and his friends teaming up with a group of Vegas impersonators to attempt to stop Julia’s wedding to Glen. Indeed, this becomes a real highlight as audience members reconcile which celebrities are being impersonated on stage, thanks to the talents of the ensemble as much as the costumes and Drew-Elizabeth Jonstone’s hair and make-up design.

Filling the shoes of the characters of an iconic movie is always going to be a difficult task and while Charisiou and Wouters do a good job, once they are settled into their story, the most dynamic appearances come courtesy of the supporting characters. Nadia Komazec is an absolute delight as Julia’s pocket-rocket personality-plus friend and fellow waitress Holly who, in contrast to Julia, is uninhibited and forward. Her comic timing brings about many of the show’s laughs. And although not terribly bright, but terribly persistent in his attempts to reunite with Holly, Sammy’s well-meaning support is what ultimately shines through in Hawkins’ performance, making him an endearing audience favourite for more than just his Bon Jovi hair.  

“The Wedding Singer” is a feel-good musical that, under Alister Smith’s direction, doesn’t take itself too seriously in its colourful celebration of everything ‘80s. With a lively score (Musical Director Daniel Puckey) and energetic performance, there is much to love about its infectious, fizzy fun, making it the ultimate either reminder of or insight into the era of excess.  

Photos c/o – Nicole Clearly

Flying high

Wicked (Matt Ward Entertainment)

Home of the Arts

June 25 – July 6

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Late in the story of “Wicked”, in his attempt to convince Elphaba to work with him, the Wizard comments on both the nature of truth and the best way to bring people together and make them happy. It’s a seemingly incidental scene amongst the musical’s procession of big moments, but it’s one that symbolises much of what makes Matt Ward Entertainment’s production of the untold story of the witches of Oz so compelling.

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As the musical’s full name implies, its focus is the story behind the classic 1939 MGM musical fantasy film, “The Wizard of Oz”, the best-known and most commercially successful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Itself based on the best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked” charts the journey of the witches of Oz, Elphaba (Samantha Dodemaide) and Glinda (Emily Monsma), from their early days as sorcery students at Shiz University in the land of Oz to them being declared to be Wicked and Good. It’s an unlikely but sincere friendship that provides the emotional heart to what is actually a much bigger and more important story.

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The musical unfolds as a flashback to before Dorothy has headed down the yellow brick road. Misjudged green girl Elphaba has arrived at Shiz with her tragically-beautiful wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Antonia Marr). When Headmistress Madame Morrible (Kaye Tuckerman) decides to take Nessarose into her protection, Elphaba is reluctantly left to room with the beautiful, popular and adorably-awkward almost Mean Girl Glinda. Tenions between the two are heighted when Fiyero (Trent Owers) arrives at school, given that both girls soon have a crush on the handsome Winkie Prince. Turns out that pink goes good with green though and the unlikely duo form a firm friendship… until they are forced apart as Elphaba’s politicisation and magical powers take her all the way to Oz to meet the Emerald City’s ‘wonderful’ Wizard (James Shaw).

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Dodemaide and Monsma are simply wonderful as Elphaba and Glinda, united together until freedom fighter Elphaba is forced to choose between following the possibilities of her magical powers and accepting the status quo. And when the two women forgive each other and acknowledge their respective mistakes in ‘For Good’, it makes for a moving musical moment.

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However, there is more to “Wicked” than big ballads and a heartfelt story of true friendship and this production’s subtle emphasis on the political underpinnings of the storyline of talking animals facing an oppressive regime easily inspires audience appreciation from a 2019 perspective. Prejudice is everywhere in the world on stage, starting with Elphaba’s rejection by others at the university due to the colour of her skin, meaning that the show works on many levels, as political allegories do. And its resonating commentary on the nature of truth (“The truth isn’t in a thing of fact, or reason. It’s simply what everyone agrees on,” the Wizard warns us) makes it easy to watch even in fifth experience of a production of the show, with afresh eyes to notice the little details that make its excellence so thorough. Indeed, this is an incredibly crafted piece of theatre, especially in its original story nods of the flying monkeys, ruby slippers and cowardly lion et al sort. And the invented malapropisms that pepper the dialogue of Glinda in particular are an ongoing delight to the audience.

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Still, “Wicked” is a musical that is defined by its soundtrack and with help from the live orchestra (Musical Director and Conductor Craig Renshaw) William David Brohn’s orchestrations are brought to wonderfully harmonious life in reminder of what makes this one of the best musical scores around. At the centre of the taxing score is the mammoth role of the passionate and intelligent Elphaba, which Dodemaide absolutely owns. She is a vocal giant, able to hold a note like no-one’s business (seen in Act Two’s ‘No Good Deed’) who shows compelling control over time signatures and changes, all the while conveying her character’s changing emotions of disappointment, frustration, betrayal and resignation. Her earnest ‘Wizard and I’ is an early standout, delivered flawlessly in play to all sections of the audience. And then there is the crown jewel of the score, “Defying Gravity’ which is as good any I’ve seen in Australia or overseas. As the score builds upon its earlier leitimotifs to its grand realisation, so too does the emotion of her epic vocals, meaning that when Elphaba finds power through her own outsider status and takes broomstick flight, the only appropriate response can be thunderous applause in understanding of why it is one of the greatest Act One finales in musical theatre history.

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Monsma plays the spoiled and sweetly stuck-up Glinda in animated and deliberately over-the-top detail down to every nuanced facial expression and awkward reaction, especially when she decides to give Elphaba a makeover in the peppy ‘Popular’. In addition to her comedic talent, the role also offers showcase of her accomplished vocals, whether operatic or in powerful belt.

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The dashing Fiyero is marvellously played by Owers, like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast” without the arrogant swagger. And Shaw has some memorable moments as the Wizard; his Act Two ‘Wonderful’ is a whimsical, vaudevillian-esque detail to Elphaba about how he got to Oz in the first place and became The Wonderful Wizard that his subjects know.

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Maria-Rose Payne’s production design is stunning. Sound and lighting are generally excellent, although projection of the Wizard’s warning is difficult to decider. And Jess Bennett’s animated costume design is impressive, capturing the unbalanced asymmetry of the world and offering many standout scenes from an aesthetic perspective, such as the black and white patterned palette of the university orientation party where the two witches begin to see each other in a different light and the extravagant green gusto of the Wizard’s Emerald City.

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“Wicked’ is an ambitious musical undertaking, in its required retelling of an iconic story, but also due to the fandom associated with the musical juggernaut, however, this production realises the spectacle in spectacular fashion. Under Tim Hill’s fine direction, its strong, energetic cast make it a soaring entertaining experience of this classic work (if classic can be assigned as a descriptor to a musical that only premiered on Broadway in 2003, to mixed reviews and then lost out to “Avenue Q” for the Tony Award for Best Musical).

Lighting up the sky like a flame

Fame The Musical (Hota and Matt Ward Entertainment)

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast

January 25 – 27

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“Fame”, the 1980 movie, chronicles the lives and hardships of students attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts, to a soundtrack of songs like ‘Fame’, ‘Out Here on My Own’, ‘Hot Lunch Jam’, ‘Never Alone’ and ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. “Fame – The Musical” stories the experiences of hopeful Class of 1984 graduates attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts, to a soundtrack of songs like ‘Fame’ and others from a virtually entirely rewritten score. These differences aside, the stage musical does still loosely shadow the plot of the ‘80s film. Those unfamiliar with the original text won’t probably realise or care, given how well the musical stands alone, and those with reverence for the classic, are at least forewarned in its introduction.

Rather than beginning with auditions, the Musical Theatre Summer School Production opens to newly accepted Juniors being respectively told that their discipline is the hardest profession in the world, whether it be acting, music or dance. The song ‘Hard Work’ bursts forth in reflection of the enormous energy of the youthful cast. Act One then sets about introducing the students and their relationships, illustrating the talent with which the cast brims. Amongst others, confident and angry singer Carmen (Bianca Coxeter) is our Coco, determined to be a success but segued in her ambition by the industry’s dark side. Shy actress Serena (Chelsea Burton) laments her unrequited love for Nick (Liam Head) and Leroy, sorry Tyrone, (Devante Latorre), is a talented dancer whose attitude is a thin-veil to his learning difficulties.

Even if the early plot lacks variation, the production has an appealing aesthetic from its outset. The soundscape is inviting from even before the show’s start and a simple but effective scaffolded set alofts the live band above a lot of the action, in front of an underused projection screen. Tight choreography makes good use of the stage areas, especially in full ensemble numbers which see groups layered across the stage and seamless transitions in contrast to the occasional microphone and lighting cue lapses.

While Kate Wormald’s more modern choreography invigorates the 1980s story, the show’s soundtrack, however, suffers from its transformation. While the new songs go some way to updating the musical, they aren’t particularly memorable. Even its titular Irene Cara track is only hinted at in Act One, although it does take pride of place in the finale. Regardless, however, large-scale numbers are all delivered with enthusiasm and exuberance, allowing showcase of some notable stage presences among the ensemble members.

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There are highlights, too, in the more low-key musical numbers. Burton gives a likeable performance as besotted acting student Serena, vocally holding the audience in the palm of her hands. And Cessalee Stovall is sensational as English and homeroom teacher Miss Sherman, especially in her powerful, but still soulful, rendition of ‘These are My Children’, which is a show highlight. And under Ben Murray’s Musical Direction, the soundtrack serves well in support rather than overwhelm of the performers, as is often the case.

Latorre is a smooth Tyrone, both is his silver-tongued attempts to subvert attention and in his fluidity of movement across dance genres, but particularly in ballet duets. And there is humour too. Nicola Barret makes a meal (#punintended) of the supporting role of the melodramatic dancer Mabel, cresendoing in her gospel-like Act Two epiphany that instead of becoming ‘the world’s fattest dancer’ (‘Mabel’s Prayer), she should instead consider Acting a major, while Jake Binns oozes exuberance as the personality-plus young acting student Joe.

Following a tight Act One, Act Two seems to drag a little by comparison, even though it brings more emotional drive as we delve a little into the lives of the students. Still, some plot threads appear to be left hanging and themes only touched upon, perhaps as expense for the ‘everyone gets a song’ approach. While the vocal talent is excellent, however, the consequential lack of emotional connection is notable due to absence of substantial insight into the students’ personal lives beyond just artist drive and/or motivation for fame.

While its characters and songs may be different from its namesake, “Fame – The Musical”, still has the trademark sentiment that has seen its franchise endure for so many decades. This Matt Ward Entertainment production is embodiment of the notion of theatrical triple threats, with adept acting, accomplished dancing and exceptional singing. Not only this, but it is full of energy and vigour, showing that, as it promises, “Fame” continues to light up the sky like a flame.